Voyager Estate was first planted in 1978 when Peter and Jennifer Gherardi established the property as Freycinet after the famous French explorer, Louis de Freycinet, who published the first complete map of the Australian shoreline in 1811. Peter Gherardi’s major contribution to present day Voyager was to make cabernet sauvignon the largest of his initial plantings. Now called the Old Block, it is one of the best two sources of cabernet from the property.
Voyager is situated about six kilometres south of Margaret River township in prime vineyard land: next door to Leeuwin Estate and across from Xanadu’s outstanding Stevens Road vineyard.
In 1991, Michael Wright purchased the 40-hectare property from the Gherardis, which had 14 hectares under vine. He developed Voyager until his death in 2012 when his daughter, Alexandra Burt, took over. The thoughtful purchase of contiguous land has resulted in a 265-hectare estate with 117 hectares under vine: Broadvale has the prize chardonnay vineyards and the North Block its prime cabernet sauvignon vines. Until recently, they sourced a small amount of cabernet from the Brindle vineyard in Wilyabrup, but now their wines are 100% estate grown.
By all reckonings, Voyager Estate is a success: its cabernets and chardonnays are among Margaret River’s finest and its glamorous cellar door is among the region’s most visited. From the beginning, Voyager has done things differently. Currently, it only offers seated tastings at the cellar door. These come in flights of three (starting at $9 per person, credited with the purchase of wine).
Examining why and how Voyager does things differently offers a useful prism for looking at its history. Answering the question that many wine lovers pose “How did Michael Wright, a teetotaller, establish a major winery like Voyager Estate?” requires an understanding of Wright’s background, his interests and what drove him in business. His family had been farmers in Scotland for generations before migrating to Victoria to work on the land in the mid-19th century. His grandfather moved west during the gold rushes of the 1890s and established a successful agricultural supplies business.
His father, Peter Wright, was Lang Hancock’s partner. Together they played a major part in establishing the state’s iron ore industry. This is how Peter made his fortune. In the early days, Wright was part of a mobile maintenance team servicing small mines in the Pilbara, mapped and pegged iron ore reserves, and worked mainly on mineral exploration throughout “the harsh and largely uninhabited region”. While continuing to work on the family’s diverse projects (coal, oil, transport and publishing), he established himself as a wheat and sheep farmer near York. He loved the rural life, yet was frustrated by government restrictions which prevented farmers from becoming involved in marketing or value-adding. He saw the Voyager project as a way of becoming involved in agriculture without these petty irritations.
Michael Wright read widely and had an extensive knowledge of climate and soils. His research before buying the land that became Voyager (the same name as the family farm) included clambering over the Freycinet fences with his children on clandestine expeditions to gather soil and water samples.
Winemaker Steve James worked closely with Michael Wright for 14 years. Wright visited Voyager often, was always keen to walk the vineyard, had a remarkable knowledge of its soils, a fascination with clones, and a readiness to encourage experimentation in the vineyard. He was down-to-earth and friendly with the workers and always had time to listen to them. Machinery fascinated him and he loved to tinker. When his tour bus broke down in the wilds of South Africa, he got under the bus and promptly fixed the problem. His idea of a holiday was to load the camper van and head for the Australian outback.
The Margaret River soil can be magnificent but is variable. The team at Voyager started out mapping the soils using a typical 100 metre grid but Wright decided that he wanted the more detailed soil profile which a 25 metre grid would give. As he says, “That’s why Voyager vineyards are sometimes irregular in shape and vary from one to five hectares in size. They begin and end where the good soils begin and end.”
One of the other ways that Voyager Estate remains different from most other Australian wineries is that, since the impressive Cliff Royle moved on in 2009, it no longer has a chief winemaker. At that time, Steve James became manager of winemaking and viticulture. This reflects the comfortable relationship that existed between him and Wright as well as the owner’s belief in the vital importance of viticulture at Voyager.
In understanding Wright’s interest in establishing a winery, it is also crucial to see him as a canny businessman. From the beginning, he realised that he would need a theme to attract visitors to Voyager. He admired South Africa and the Cape Dutch architecture and believed that the style could produce magnificent buildings in Margaret River. Although he had ‘no particular love of gardens’, he considered that a complex of rose gardens would draw tourists. As an avid member of the Australian National Flag Association, Wright’s pride and joy was the 30-metre flag pole and the third largest flag in the nation. Clearly, this, too, would be a talking point for visitors.
Until now, Voyager’s flagship wines have been named for the American mining engineer Tom Price who played a key role in establishing the iron ore industry in the West. The 2014 – vintage of the century – sees these replaced by a barrel selection of chardonnay and one of cabernet and released as the new flagships: MJW. This is a fitting tribute to Voyager Estate’s founder, Michael Wright, a teetotaller who planted his mark firmly on the history of this impressive Margaret River winery. Stunning wines, they are too.
Voyager Estate, open 7 days, 10am-5pm, Stevens Rd, Margaret